Part 2 of an interview with Todd Becker, of Getting Stronger.
Don’t know what this is? Read Part 1 here. (Hint: It’s awesome.)
Julien: Todd, welcome back! Since the last section of the interview we published, I’ve gotten comments from Twitter and on the blog where people have said “I’ve been doing exercises for a week already and my vision is better,” or “I just took a cold shower– wow! I’m not stopping that anytime soon.” Since your methods seem to be simple, interesting, and functional for people, can you give us some practical starting points where people could experience it for themselves?
Todd: I’m encouraged to see all this interest in doing hard things! That must say something about your readers, because there is an understandable human tendency to take the easy path. Most of us will work hard at something only if we can see the benefits, so long as no superhuman effort is required. So start with a goal that motivates you. Do you want to lose weight, get fit, or improve your eyesight? Choose something personally important. Pick a goal that will really please you if you can achieve it. It should be a moderately challenging goal that you know will take effort, but one that is achievable within weeks to months. Make it specific. It could be something physical, like reaching a goal weight, being able to walk or run a certain distance, or being able to drive without glasses. But it could also be something behavioral — gaining control of your temper, or overcoming specific fears, obsessions or frustrations.
Now my next recommendation is to forget about that lofty goal! Because that’s the place where so many people fail. They often flail away at a hard goal, and make some initial progress. But then they hit a plateau, fail to achieve their goal, and get discouraged. One person who recognized this typical pattern of obsessive effort, followed by burnout, was George Leonard. Leonard was an aikido master and a luminary of the human potential movement of the sixties and seventies. He studied what it takes to achieve hard goals and summarized this in a wonderful little book, with the title “Mastery“. He believed in setting tough goals, but he cautioned that being too obsessively focused on goals is counterproductive.
So I think we need to do two things to get started. First, I’m a very strong believer in gradualism. Break down your lofty goal into small steps. Pick a very small and concrete first step on the path to your goal, something you haven’t reached, but something you think you could reach within a week. It could be a physical achievement like losing two pounds. But it is probably more instructive to pick something that involves your emotions or sensations. For example, being able to go two afternoons next without any snacks, waiting out the hunger pangs. Or being able to last one full minute in a cold shower. Or resolving to get through one whole day where you decide not to let traffic or quarrelsome people bother you. Whether it involves your body or your emotions, it must be somewhat unpleasant and difficult — or you won’t activate hormesis and the sustained reward you’ll get from opponent processes. Over the next two weeks, pick this one narrow aspect and focus on it like a laser beam. If you can achieve the goal in the first week, aim for an additional increment of improvement in the second week.
The second thing I’d advise is even more important than the first. At then end of the second week, start focusing on the effort as an end in itself. Stick with the plan towards your goal, but forget about making progress for a while. Focus only on the care and thoroughness of the effort itself. Leonard talked about “learning to love the plateau”. He wrote eloquently about how to turn our efforts into habitual “rituals” that we can stick with and learn to savor for the long term. These rituals will grow on you with time, and they are your best defense against burnout. You’ll soon recognize that the most important “product” of your self-improvement efforts is not the specific goal itself! The real “product” is the recognition that the very act of making a sustained effort will permanently change your mental and physical “machinery” in ways that train and prepare you to take on even harder tasks. In that sense, the real “mastery” is not in achieving your specific goal, but rather in becoming master of your own destiny. So while it will help your motivation to start out with a personally meaningful goal, in the long run it not so important what specific goal you choose to work on. Because you are really working on yourself.
J: Funny, that’s just what I started doing recently. Precisely when I’m thinking “why would I want to get into this cold shower again?” — that’s exactly when I jump in, to force the movement at the time of most resistance, for its own sake.
I’m also starting a 24-hour fast in about two hours– any advice on getting through the tough parts?
T: I’m actually in the middle of a 30-hour fast right now, so my mindset is right to answer your question. I’m normally not hungry at dinner time, but I was hungry yesterday afternoon, so that was my cue to start fasting until I eat dinner tonight. Just as you realized with your shower, the best time to plunge into discomfort is precisely when your mind is rebelling. There’s no better way than this to decondition your cravings, and I find it really does rewire my circuits and smooths the path forward. The best way to kill cravings is never to reward them: Eat only when you’re not hungry!
If you’ve done some short intermittent fasts before, Julien, you’ll probably do just fine. But I wouldn’t advise a 24-hour fast for anyone getting started with intermittent fasting. As I’ve said before, gradualism is important. Just as you wouldn’t try to bench-press 300 pounds in your very first attempt at weightlifting, you’ve got to build up a tolerance for this sort of thing. For someone starting out, I’d first look to cut out eating after dinner — allow 2 to 3 hours between the last bite and bedtime. Then cut out all afternoon snacks, at least most days. Then cut out breakfasts and go to 1 or 2 meals a day. This sounds like heresy when we’ve been lectured on the importance of eating a big breakfast to start the day, and eating frequent small meals to keep pumping fresh glucose into our veins. But the science tells us a different story: Learning to adapt to long stretches of time without eating teaches our body to more quickly upregulate the hormones and enzymes that allow rapid burning of our fat and glycogen stores “on demand”. This drives down our basal insulin levels, upregulates neuroprotective brain growth factors like BDNF, and activates the breakdown of oxidized and glycosylated waste products that accumulate in our cells. If we are constantly eating small meals, our insulin levels never get low enough to let this happen.
Another myth that needs to be dispelled is that if you fast for a day you’ll go into “starvation mode” and start to break down your own muscle tissues. That’s just not true. It takes 3-5 days of fasting before any significant catabolism of muscle tissue kicks in. You have plenty of fat and glycogen on your body to get you through a few days of fasting without any problem. There are some excellent resources on this, including the Fast-5 diet (editor’s note: download their free e-book), and Leangains, the website of Martin Berkans. Martin combines intermittent fasting with weight training to get great results with both health and looking great.
Keep a log of your experience during your fast. If you’re like me you’ll experience long stretches of incredible clarity, lightness and energy. You’ll feel like all the cobwebs inside your head have been cleared out. But you’ll also experience discomfort at times. When you first start fasting, it takes time for your metabolism to switch over from burning glucose to burning fat and ketones. Your brain, heart and muscles will do just fine on fat and ketones, but many people experience cravings, light-headedness, headaches or “fogginess” during the transition. And those episodes could last up to a few hours. The more you fast, the more rapidly you switch over to fat burning, so these problems diminish. A very small percentage of people get true hypoglycemia — with shakes and feeling like they will faint or black out. If that happens, eat something with quick glucose like a small piece of fruit or candy bar — but keep it small. Otherwise, drinking non-caloric beverages like water, or unsweetened coffee or herb teas is a great idea.
You’ll also find you suddenly have all this extra time freed up by not eating, preparing food, thinking about food, or driving to eat food. I find that these are great times to go for a walk or do something active. The light exercise will actually cause your liver to kick in and supply you with fresh glucose or fatty acids, and that will dampen your appetite and give you a fresh burst of energy.
Good luck with the fast!
J: Thanks, it actually went great. I do it once a week. I was traveling to a Mexico event while it was going on so I fasted around 28 hours total. I find it best when you’re busy, so you don’t even notice you’re not eating– the opposite of being on a plane, actually. But once you’re done you happy you did it. :)
You know, it’s funny, the more I think about advising people to do this stuff, the more I feel like I’m advocating that people participate in weird, cult-like behavior for the purpose of strengthening themselves. For me it’s essential that these behaviours be self-directed, not come from outside. Their purpose is to develop self-sufficiency and health– as Erwan le Corre would say, to be “healthy, happy, and free.”
That said, I think there could be something here, a systematic methodology, which one could use in order to help ourselves take risk, be comfortable with stress and make better, non-fear based decisions. What do you think?
T: You’re right. From the outside, I suppose certain practices like intermittent fasting or cold showers could make Hormetism look like some bizarre ascetic cult. But it is really not a fixed belief system or set of rituals. It’s a versatile approach to self-improvement that is infinitely adaptable to meet individual needs–a “systematic methodology”, as you put it. Everyone’s interests and difficulties are different, and personal change usually happens only when you are motivated and feel in control. I think that preaching and pushing specific directives on other people using backfires. What I’ve tried to do on “Getting Stronger” is to propose a relatively simple formula or set of tools that can be applied to virtually any aspect of self-improvement. On the blog, I’ve described how to apply these tools to a range of very different challenges, such as improving eyesight, avoiding running injuries, extinguishing cravings for sugar or drugs, or mastering negative emotions like worry or anger. While many people who visit the website are searching for answers to just one specific problem, what I’m hoping to get across is that all our personal challenges have something in common. There is set of universal tools that you can apply to any problem, often one that I may not have discussed or even thought about. On my forum, people have written about their own unique issues like nail-biting or addiction to specific foods, and many have come up with their own creative solutions.
What makes Hormetism so different, and perhaps controversial, is that it turns the conventional wisdom about “self-improvement” on its head. The usual approach is to try to relieve or compensate for some particular stress. So you correct poor eyesight by using glasses, tame appetite by eating frequent snacks, treat addiction by abstinence, or control allergies with antihistamines. I suggest you take the exact opposite approach: start by applying a small additional amount of controlled stress. Of course, at first this seems to make things harder! But, just like lifting weights, progressively increase the stress for short periods of time, allowing for rest and recovery, until you’ve adapted and become stronger. This is a gradual process and it takes time — often weeks or months. But at the end of the day, if you persist, your body and soul are stronger. Not only that, you are no longer dependent on a “crutch” like a pair of glasses, a special diet, or some medication. So unlike cultists who give up their freedom to join a movement, you now have toolset you can use to get stronger in a more fundamental and permanent way, freeing yourself from continued dependency on external contrivances.
J: Ok, so let’s move into the discussion of psychological training, to adjust to stress and be able to thrive while under pressure. If I have to make a big decision, or I am avoiding one due to fear or perceived risk, what should I be doing to make sure that fear isn’t the reason I’m avoiding the decision? This goes beyond your usual hormesis stuff (physiological adaptations) but I believe it’s probably within the same realm as the rest, am I right?
T: Most people tend to think that physical and psychological stress are two different things, but they are surprisingly similar in some ways. Too much of either can be harmful. And for that reason, we are usually counseled to keep stress carefully in check. In the case of your example about decision making under pressure, the conventional advice would be “stress management“: take a break from the action, calm down using relaxation techniques, and get some time by yourself to carefully reflect. To the extent that the perception of risk is driven by uncertainties, gather more information. If you’ve got all the information but are still fearful, perhaps you need to probe that fear, by yourself, with close friends, or with a therapist. Sounds sensible, but how realistic is that advice? In the real world, you don’t always have the luxury of time or resources to properly chill out. Time is limited, pressure is unrelenting, and you must decide in the moment.
Other than warning of us of immediate dangers, though, I think fear is usually counterproductive in making good decisions. What you really need is a way to toughen yourself psychologically so that fear is no longer a factor, and clear thinking can emerge. And just as gradual application of physical stresses provide hormetic benefits, there are training techniques that can help you immunize yourself from disabling emotions. Jim Loehr, a sports psychologist who worked with Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen, developed a methodology he called “toughness training“. He used this to help elite athletes like Jansen deal with stress and fear “in the moment”. To build mental toughness, he used intense training exercises to simulate real situations, followed by periods of rest and recovery. Loehr later applied these to help “corporate athletes” make better decisions under stress. I recommend his book, “The Power of Full Engagement“, which I’ve reviewed on my blog.
More than two thousand years ago, the ancient Stoics developed a psychological technique which is particularly effective in banishing fear. It’s called “negative visualization“. You spend time contemplating the worst that could happen in the decision at hand. You could lose your job, or your investments might crash. You contemplate the illness or death of a loved one. This might sound morose, but it has some interesting effects. First, it increases your appreciation of what you do have. Second, you often realize that even in what you thought was the worst case, you would still be alright and could bounce back without great difficulty. Tim Ferriss, the entrepreneur and “lifestyle design” guru, found this technique liberated him from some fears that were holding him back from making a major decision to leave a job he felt trapped in, embarking on a travel adventure that changed the direction of his life. He and gave a talk about it at Google, captured in a YouTube video that I think addresses your question very well.
J: Wow, GREAT video.
Todd, I was just reading this stuff from what is basically my favourite blog right now. The comments seem to suggest that resistance to disease is a hormetic process. If that’s true, is the human body a hormetic machine? We do see it in other places, like getting stronger bone structure if we lift weights, etc. Or would that be generalizing?
T: Thanks, Julien, I took a look at those comments on Whole Heath Source. I’m familiar with Stephan Guyenet and I share his perspective on a range of topics, including the benefits of low carb or paleo diets, intermittent fasting, high intensity intermittent exercise–all good examples of how hormesis can broadly stimulate good heath. Stephan’s site is not the only one in this category — there are a number of “evolutionary diet and fitness” blogs that share his perspective, including those by Art Devany, Mark Sisson, and Martin Berkhan.
But I’m not sure that hormesis has been adequately explained, even on those sites. Sometimes hormesis is portrayed as a mysterious or surprising biological quirk that only pops up under a narrow set of circumstances. Other times it’s just thought of as a lofty philosophical generality – Nietzsche said “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. Hormesis has inspired a certain degree of pseudo-science, like homeopathy. And some skeptics argue that hormesis does not even exist — there are huge debates as to whether there really is a low dose benefit to radiation sources like radon or certain chemical “toxins” in foods and the environment. Hormesis is denied or ignored by regulatory agencies such as EPA and FDA. So there is a lot of controversy and lack of consensus about what exactly hormesis is.
My own view is that hormesis can be explained as a set of general and specific adaptive repair and defense mechanisms that exist in all organisms, on the level of both individual cells and organ systems. These are real physiological mechanisms, involving specific proteins, enzymes and hormones that are turned on in response to environmental triggers. It’s not surprising that organisms have evolved ways to repair damage and fortify themselves against environmental stresses. Organisms that can adapt hormetically would obviously out-compete those that couldn’t repair damage or resist increased stress. Some types of hormetic adaptation are highly specific — like the way that animals grow a thicker fur coat to survive the winter, or how guitarists grow calluses on their fingers. One of the more exciting developments I’m researching is allergen immunotherapy, which uses systematic progressive low dose exposure to allergens to strengthen the immune system and totally cure people of specific allergies. But others types of hormesis are more systemic, turning on a whole cascade of metabolic adjustments. I’d put high intensity interval training, insulin-lowering diets and low dose radiation into that category of systemic hormesis.
There are extensive human and animal studies by scientists like Edward Calabrese and Suresh Rattan, that uncover specific hormetic repair mechanisms, and document health and longevity benefits. But I have not seen much investigation into how to apply this knowledge usefully in our own lives. There are many practical questions to answer: What is the optimal level and frequency of any given stress like fasting, cold water immersion, or radiation? If the optimum varies for each individual, which I think is likely, what’s the best way to experimentally figure out the right dose and timing in your individual situation? How much can you continue to increase the stress? How much improvement in life span and health are possible? Are there new types of hormesis that might even be more efficient or effective? Those are some of the questions I’m investigating and writing about on “Getting Stronger,” but this is really an unexplored continent, with a lot to be learned!
End of Part 2!